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We Need to Putin-Proof the Balkans Now

Southeastern Europe is entering renewed crisis—and Moscow is fomenting more chaos at a dangerous time

Friday brought good news for those who want Europe’s troubled Southeast to join Western security and political structures. Montenegro’s parliament officially approved the country’s invitation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It wasn’t a slam-dunk—approval got 46 votes in the 81-member assembly, with opponents boycotting the vote—and joining NATO remains controversial in the tiny Balkan country, but this was unquestionably a setback for the Russians.

Vladimir Putin pushed hard to keep Montenegro out of the Atlantic Alliance, applying the full range of dirty tricks in the Kremlin’s Special War toolbox: espionage, propaganda, subversion, even plotting assassination and terrorism. It didn’t work in the end, indeed a ham-handed scheme by Russian spies to violently overthrow Montenegro’s government last fall probably helped the pro-NATO side in the end.

Kremlin motivations here are anti-Western spite more than rational strategic calculus. Montenegro was never part of either the Tsarist or Soviet empires, and while it’s easy to see why Russians are perturbed by NATO expansion in the former USSR, Moscow’s anger over a tiny country on the other side of Europe seems out of place. Yet, as I’ve previously explained, Putin continues to fret about NATO’s role in the break-up of Yugoslavia a generation ago, which he like many Russians views as some sort of nefarious Western plot. This is pure ressentiment.

The Russians lost this round, however, and Montenegro will soon become NATO’s 29th member, perhaps at the Alliance’s 2017 summit in Brussels in late May. While Montenegro brings little to NATO, strictly speaking—its military is smaller than Baltimore’s police department, and not much better armed—its geostrategic position is important. NATO will now control the entire Adriatic coastline, which has real implications for the security of the Mediterranean and Southern Europe. The country’s key port of Kotor, a protected maritime repair facility long coveted by Moscow, is a definite positive for the Alliance.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Trump Administration Changes Its Tune on Ed Snowden, Moscow’s Star Defector

CIA Director Pompeo and AG Sessions blast celebrity leaker

The recent statement by CIA Director Mike Pompeo that WikiLeaks is a fraud and an anti-American actor on the global stage has led to gnashing of teeth among fans of that celebrated “privacy organization.” Pompeo did not mince words, declaring that WikiLeaks is an enemy of the United States and Western democracies and he denounced its founder Julian Assange in unusually blunt terms:

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service…it overwhelmingly focuses on the United States while seeking support from anti-democratic countries and organizations. It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia… Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom…Assange is a narcissist who has created nothing of value. He relies on the dirty work of others to make himself famous. He’s a fraud, a coward hiding behind a screen.”

The seriousness of the Trump administration’s outing of WikiLeaks and Assange as enemies of free societies has been demonstrated further by reports that the Department of Justice is seriously considering pressing charges against Assange over his role in recent leaks of CIA hacking tools. That Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week described Assange’s arrest as a “priority” for his department indicates that this is more than a theoretical debate for the Trump administration.

This represents a remarkable turnabout for the White House, particularly since last year Donald Trump professed his “love” for WikiLeaks when it was hurting Hillary Clinton by releasing emails that our Intelligence Community has assessed were stolen by Russian spies then passed to Assange to bolster the Trump campaign. Now, however, the president says he is okay with Assange’s arrest, and the rest of his administration has followed suit, abruptly changing its line on the fugitive who’s been holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London for the last five years, on the lam from rape charges in Sweden.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Why North Korea is a Black Hole for U.S. Intelligence

As tensions rise with Pyongyang, don’t expect answers from the CIA

The failure of North Korea’s latest missile test last weekend was good news for pretty much everybody outside that strange country. The new-model medium-range ballistic missile exploded shortly after lift-off, making it the latest embarrassing misstep in Pyongyang’s ceaseless quest to be taken seriously as a more-than-regional power.

The Trump White House isn’t concealing its gloating over the North Korean setback, with the president coyly refusing to comment on rumors of secret sabotage of the missile. On cue, Pyongyang has promised more missile tests, and nobody should expect that Donald Trump’s latest promise of unspecified retaliation against North Korea in the event of more games with ballistic missiles will have much of a deterrent effect.

This is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, after all, the weirdest country on earth—a deeply militarized Communist regime, almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, and governed by a dynastic family in pre-1789 fashion. That the DPRK possesses nuclear weapons means there’s nothing to laugh about here, notwithstanding the fact that Pyongyang lacks the ability to accurately get those nukes anywhere very far from North Korea.

Then there’s the problem that nobody seems to understand what makes North Korea tick. Most Western “experts” on the regime have no idea what they’re talking about, as I’ve explained, and there’s a very good case that the DPRK actually may welcome confrontation with the United States—even nuclear confrontation. While Pyongyang’s bluster about preemptive nuclear strikes against friends of America (read: South Korea and Japan) sounds far-fetched, it’s best to side with caution and accept that the DPRK really might do exactly that.

Read the rest at The Observer …

KremlinGate and the Limits of Classified Evidence

The FBI’s been investigating possible links between the Kremlin and President Trump for nearly a year—here’s why it’s moving so slowly

President Trump’s Russia problem is off the front pages for the first time in months. In retaliation for the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical weapons against civilians, Trump attacked a Syrian airbase using 59 cruise missiles launched from U.S. Navy ships.

To the great distress of many of the president’s most ardent fans, the Trump White House has honored Obama’s Syrian “red line,” which his predecessor so embarrassingly walked away from almost four years ago, thereby handing the Syrian problem—and much of the Middle East—over to Vladimir Putin. It’s no wonder that the Kremlin is suddenly critical of the new administration, using strong words to express its displeasure with Trump’s muscular act against the Assad regime, which is Moscow’s loyal client.

But none of this means the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of KremlinGate is going away. In fact, we now know that it’s been underway for almost a year. According to a new report in The New York Times, John Brennan, the CIA director during President Obama’s second term, knew last summer that Kremlin interference in our election was a serious and fast-growing problem. He was so worried that, in late August, Brennan personally briefed eight senior members of Congress on new evidence of Russia’s meddling—in some cases, the CIA director interrupted their summer vacations to share the bad news.

The Times doesn’t indicate what that urgent new intelligence was, but members of the Intelligence Community with access to that evidence have told me there are several top-secret reports—mainly, but not exclusively, signals intelligence from NSA—demonstrating links between Team Trump and top Kremlin officials, hinting at collusion with Moscow during last year’s election. Although none of these reports individually is conclusive—there is no “smoking gun” as Beltway wonks like to say—taken together they lead to the disturbing finding that Trump’s campaign was in cahoots with Moscow to hurt Hillary Clinton. That the IC knew much of this last summer invites disturbing questions about the Obama administration’s puzzling inaction last fall, in the weeks leading to the election.

Read the rest at The Observer …

100 Years Ago Today: America Enters the Great War

This is a momentous anniversary for our country—but is there anything to celebrate here?

A century ago today, the United States Congress, acting on the request of President Woodrow Wilson, declared war on Imperial Germany. Four days before, on the evening of April 2, the president addressed a joint session of Congress, asking for war. The subsequent vote was hardly close, with the House voting 373 to 50 in favor, while the Senate’s tally of 82 to six was even more lopsided.

This was the most important foreign policy decision made by Washington in the entire 20th century, since by entering the First World War—called the Great War at the time—the United States determined the outcome of that momentous and horrible conflict and thereby set Europe on a course for an even more terrible war to come.

None of that could be known at the time, of course. Reluctantly, President Wilson finally decided to enter the war—after successfully running for reelection in 1916 on a peace platform—when Berlin’s conduct became intolerable, leading to American deaths. Like the college professor he was, Wilson hoped for peace and considered the Great War to be a by-product of Europe’s decrepit and illiberal empires, to which the president and his fellow American progressives felt morally superior.

Wilson did not enter the war lightly. How could he, once word of the appalling losses of 1916 reached America? Nightmares like Verdun and the Somme, where millions of Europeans killed and maimed each other without changing much of anything strategically, meant no sensible person could welcome more such slaughter.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Trump Has a Problem With NSA — But So Does Obama

There’s a lot of misinformation about how SIGINT unmasking works

Here we go again. The latest twist in President Donald Trump’s never-ending allegation that the Obama White House was spying on Team Trump before inauguration day involves an arcane, highly classified issue about Americans who are mentioned in signals intelligence intercepts.

Trump and his supporters seek to paint any interception of American phone calls—or even discussions about Americans by foreigners—as improper and maybe illegal. That’s not true. Every day, the National Security Agency intercepts lots of calls between foreigners in which Americans are discussed. If they’re important Americans—top politicians, for instance—that intercept may have intelligence value. If it doesn’t, the intercept is deleted and forgotten.

More rarely, the NSA intercepts phone calls in which one of the interlocutors is an American. As long as this operation has been approved per the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—meaning a top-secret Federal court has issued a warrant for this collection—this is perfectly legal SIGINT. Here, too, an intelligence report will be issued in top-secret channels if the NSA determines there’s foreign intelligence value here and somebody, usually the FBI, needs to know what the intercept reveals.

In all cases, the identity of the American or Americans discussed is masked in the top-secret reports issued by NSA. They are referred to as “US Person” or USP for short; if there’s more than one of them, a number is added. Such SIGINT reports look like this fictional excerpt:

Read the rest at The Observer …

The 9 Russian Words That Explain KremlinGate

It’s International Talk Like a Chekist Day—here’s a quick primer on kombinatsiya, konspiratsiya and more

As the Trump administration’s Russia problem shows no sign of going away, protesting presidential tweets notwithstanding, it’s time to think about it properly. Understanding what the Kremlin’s up to helps to see the big picture. This means learning a bit of spy lingo. Espionage, like everything else, has its own culture—including special verbiage—which varies from country to country.

Russia’s espionage culture is unique and in key ways markedly different from how Western countries approach the spy-game. It’s a product of the Soviet secret police, that brutal and cunning force, and it’s no accident that Vladimir Putin’s spies proudly call themselves Chekists today to commemorate them—just as they did in the days of the KGB. “There are no ‘former’ Chekists,” as the KGB veteran Putin has stated, and this attitude permeates his Kremlin.

The threat to our democracy posed by Moscow’s spy-games won’t recede on its own. As Rick Ledgett, NSA’s straight-talking deputy director, stated last week, “This is a challenge to the foundations of our democracy.” He went on: “How do we counter that?” adding, “What do we do as a nation to make it stop?”

This first thing we must do is gain a reality-based understanding of the SpyWar we’re in with Moscow. So, let’s walk through a few of the most important Russian espionage terms to shed some light on what’s really going on between Washington and the Kremlin.

Read the rest at The Observer …